Monday, July 29, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

I saw the book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power at Costco, and true to my nature, I judged it by the cover. In addition, the author had received a Pulitzer Prize, so I was pretty sure it would be good.

What a wonderful look at one of the most dynamic of our founding fathers! He brought Thomas Jefferson to life with the theme of power running through the book. 

He begins with Thomas Jefferson’s childhood and early years. His father died early in his life and left him as the “man of the house”. Therefore Thomas Jefferson had to begin exercising power early. Because of some preternatural wisdom, Jefferson sought out older men to mentor him and make connections that would introduce him into the halls of power. 

Being a landed gentleman, he served in the House of Burgesses in Virginia from a young age. He therefore had a very close up view of the British government and its dealings with the colonies. So when skirmishes broke out in Boston, it was Jefferson who was called to write up our fabled Declaration of Independence.

Although a slave owner, Jefferson recognized that the institution had to die. He included this kind of language in the Declaration, only to see it removed during the revision process. He would fight his whole life in whatever pragmatic way he could to end the practice he had inherited. Unfortunately, it was a battle in which he would ultimately fail.

The first year of the Revolution saw him elected as Governor of Virginia. He used this time to go through the legal code of the state with a fine-toothed comb. He ended ancient inheritance laws designed to benefit the landed gentry. He learned to practice pragmatism, to feel out the lawmakers and push from behind the scenes legislation he deemed valuable. He knew how to use language and religious sentiments to further his causes. He pushed for freedom of Religion, arguing that for the state to prop us a particular religion only enfeebles that faith. He quoted Scripture to say that the gates of  hell shall not prevail against the church, and therefore government support was not necessary. God did not need humans to prop Him up. His moment of ignominy occurred when he fled Richmond as it came under British attack. He would spend much of his political career living that down.

“A favored son, a brilliant student, a legislator of his state at age twenty-five, author of the Summary View at thirty-one and of the declaration of Independence at thirty-three, governor of Virginia at thirty-six… Thomas Jefferson was accustomed to public success and popular praise, to moving from strength to strength and from glory to glory.” But now his wife was dead, he was humiliated over the attacks hurled at him for abandoning Richmond, and he felt the sting of public malice. Thomas Jefferson knew the choice was between a quiet retirement, leaving his name muddied or advancing and continuing to make a mark. When he was called to serve in Paris, he jumped at the chance.

Jefferson loved his time in Paris, but never forgot that he was, first and foremost, an American. While there, he developed a life-long, although at times rocky, friendship with the Adams. He fell deeply in love with a married woman, Maria Cosway. His head and his heart battled, with no clear winner. His time spent with her was brief, but it is the one scandal that he admitted, much later in life, was true. He corresponded with her throughout his life, albeit intermittently. 

During his time in Paris, his wife’s half-sister, a slave, Sally Hemings was sent to help care for Jefferson’s daughters. Interestingly, he did not request her, yet the author concludes that Sally’s resultant pregnancy was because of an affair with Jefferson. However throughout his life, there is no evidence they were sexually active. Only the timing of her pregnancies, the word of her children and rumors in country are offered as proof. Never once does Jefferson send for her, inquire of her, treat her children differently from other slaves, or acknowledge the rumors as true. In characteristic fashion, he refuses to discuss them. He was opposed to gossip and trained from an early age to manage, so it’s easy to imagine him taking the fall for another’s dalliances. In fact, although the author acknowledges the DNA linking Hemings ancestors to Jefferson, the Thomas Jefferson Society has admitted it is not clear that Thomas Jefferson was the father and there is research suggesting that the father of the Hemings children may have been Jefferson’s brother. 

From the distant continent, he received word of the new Constitution. It was more than he could have hoped for. He sailed home and was offered the position of Secretary of State by the first president, George Washington.

Although he and Washington respected each other, they were never close. Partially this was because both feared two different things. Jefferson, ever the democrat, saw the lessons of the English Civil War and feared that Americans would grow frustrated with their republic and demand a king. Impolitic statements by the Federalists added to his fears. Washington, having suffered under an impotent federal government during the Revolution, feared a government that was too weak. As he knew concerning himself, he had no ambition towards monarchy. In fact, all his efforts were to avoid just such a fate for himself and when confronted with the possibility of becoming a king, he reacted with horror. Perhaps this led him to underplay Jefferson’s fears and therefore rely on the Federalist, strong-government-supporting, Hamilton. 

Jefferson did not enjoy his time in New York as Secretary of State. But he did manage to make sure the Capitol was built in the south and taken out of the hands of his dreaded Federalist bankers. Even this was a pragmatic response to Hamilton’s idea of a National Bank. While Jefferson feared it, he knew as a practical matter, it would come to pass. He got the best deal he felt he could. Finally, at the end of Washington’s first term, he could take the infighting no longer and resigned. 

He returned to his beloved Monticello and family. Although he ostensibly wanted to escape the drama inherent in politics, it was here he listened to the political news of the day and plotted with his compatriots Madison and Monroe. While he considered himself a farmer and retired from civil service, nevertheless, he diligently followed politics. So it came as no surprise that 4 short years later he again embroiled in national happenings. He and Adams were the forerunners for the title of 2nd President of the United States. Jefferson narrowly lost to become the 2nd Vice President of the United States. 

He continued to operate according to previous power plays, smooth and polite, a warrior who chose his battles, yet conducted himself in the background. Adams sealed his political fate with the hated Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson kept a wary eye on his leader, always with fears of a return to monarchy present. When Republican Thomas Callender was prosecuted under the Sedition Act for speaking out against Adams, the Jefferson/Adams friendship suffered an almost fatal blow. Jefferson would replace John Adams in the election of 1800 as the 3rd President.

“From war making to economic life to territorial acquisition to federal spending to subpoenas and the sharing of information with Congress and the courts, Jefferson maintained or expanded the authority of the presidential office.” He operated as a hands-on president, knowing the power of the office and persuasiveness of personal attention. He interacted intimately with the legislature in order to govern in a consistent fashion with a consistent message. He is most famously known for sending Lewis and Clark to chart the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of America. He faced scandal however when he did not fully exonerate James Callender for the sedition charge. The rumors of his dalliances with Sally Hemings would hit the front pages as a result. As President, he was forced to deal with European hostilities and unfinished business with England. While he navigated us peacefully through, the story was not over and the War of 1812 would result on Madison’s watch. 

Following in Washington’s footsteps, Jefferson stepped down after two terms. He returned to his beloved Monticello, where, despite desiring a quite retirement, he very much kept up with the swirling political world. He dealt with deaths and scandals. In true Jeffersonian fashion, he solved every problem he could and lamented those he couldn’t. He knew how to make things happen and when to sweep things under the rug. He focused on his next great love, the University of Virginia. He watched as the Missouri Compromise enshrined slavery and ushered in what Jefferson called, “the knell of the Union.” He knew a geographic line would inexorably lead to civil war. 

At one point, near the end of his life, Jefferson was asked to counsel a young namesake on how to live a virtuous life. He answered, “Adore God, reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be Just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence. So shall the life into which you have entered be the portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss.”

What fitting words to a remarkable life. 

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